Tag Archives: Self

London disaster porn, or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the flood

I bought this book the other day. How could I not? Everything from the cover to the title to the name of the author screams ‘BUY ME!’, and so I did.

The Big Wave: The Day London Collapsed is, as you might have guessed, about a tsunami that destroys London. Here is a choice paragraph:

Somewhere twenty or so feet below us, under uncountable tons of debris, was the street we had once known as Haymarket; the grey hill to our right was largely the remains of Canada House; the ravine in front would be Sussex Place and beyond that – at the moment not visible – would be the National Gallery. The city we knew had been buried, the streets engulfed by debris, wiped out of existence. I stared at the grey and broken landscape attempting to absorb the scale of the disaster. It was too much. It was too big.

Hot stuff, huh?

And it got me thinking. Not about the danger of a seismic episode taking place ten miles off the Thames Estuary, sending shock waves through the city, felling major landmarks and preempting a giant tidal wave that turns the entire London basin into a corpse-riddled swamp, but about authors who love destroying London.

Will Self’s The Book Of Dave, Richard Jeffries’s After London and JG Ballard’s The Drowned World all take place in a London destroyed by flood (interestingly, Conrad Voss Bark’s The Big Wave is the only book I own that actually describes the flood taking place), and all are marked by a relish in seeing the city brought low. It’s all very Biblical.

‘The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his foot,’ writes Jeffries in After London, an almost unreadable Victorian novel. ‘He had penetrated into the midst of that dreadful place…’ We never find out what has destroyed London other than some sort of catastrophic flood, but Jeffries carefully draws an entirely new, almost medieval, world, which he clearly prefers to the Victorian one he has demolished. It’s a bit like John Christopher’s Prince In Waiting trilogy, only nowhere near as good.

Ballard’s dense and difficult 1963 novel The Drowned World is little better. Again, after catastrophic flooding, London has been replaced by a fetid swamp, something that Ballard seems remarkably sanguine about, as this spot of dialogue makes clear.

‘Do you know where we are, the name of this city?’ he asked.

‘Part of it used to be called London; not that it matters.’

Later, in the book’s most evocative passages, the characters walk through drained streets around Leicester Square. ‘Dying fish and marine plants expired in the centre of the roadways… they stood in the entrance to one of the huge cinemas, sea urchins and cucumbers flickering faintly across the tiled floor.’

Both these books were obvious influences for Self’s recent The Book Of Dave, which takes places on the island of Ham. This is Self’s name for the high-lying remains of Hampstead Heath, which overlook a London that has been replaced by a lagoon after, you guessed it, catastrophic flooding. Self doesn’t exhibit quite so much glee at the demise of London, although he draw a strong contrast between the idyllic, unquestioning life of those on Ham and the manic contemporary Londoners, brains overfilled with unnecessary knowledge, that we meet in flashback. One of them, the titular Dave, has been driven insane by the intensity of modern living.

So all three, in their different ways, present the London-free future as being preferable to the present. And if they are accurate predictions of the future, perhaps the following shouldn’t freak me out quite as much as it does.

Pleasant dreams!